Small Batch of Ethical Custom T-Shirts?
July 11, 2019 6:36 AM   Subscribe

My friends and I are thinking about getting custom printed t-shirts with a leftist phrase on them ("Spreadsheet Anarchist"). We only need like six or seven at most and we want them to be ethical (e.g. union made). We're open to stuff like silk screening but don't have experience or equipment. What's the best/most economical way to do this?

With the understanding that there are no ethical t-shirts under capitalism, our concerns are:

1) How can we get ethically-made shirts, ideally in a deepish red? We need both "men's" and "women's" shirts and options for larger bodies.

2) How can we get the words onto the shirts in a way that doesn't look like crap? We'd only need one ink color (black). We're open to professional printing but we only need a few, and we're open to other stuff like iron-on transfers or silk screening if we can do it economically and it'll look good and not peel off after two washes or anything. If it matters, we're in the DC area.

3) How can we not spend a zillion dollars to do this?

Thank you so much for any guidance you can provide!
posted by an octopus IRL to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Also! BONUS POINTS if the t-shirts can be individualized and not just customized (e.g. if someone can be "Swamp Maoist" instead of "Spreadsheet Anarchist"), but this isn't necessary, the shirts looking good is the most important thing.
posted by an octopus IRL at 6:39 AM on July 11

DIY silkscreening t-shirts is fun and easy (at least if you are satisified with monochrome printing). I used the Speedball screen and kit and used the sun to expose my screen. I think the Blick near Franklin Square carries what you'd need.
posted by exogenous at 6:57 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]

Doesn’t even need to be monochrome! I did two-color runs of DIY shirts using Speedball kits, and found it easy to make runs of a few dozen.

As far as the shirts themselves, I’ve been very happy with the fit and color of Bella + Canvas. Their ethics seem unobjectionable and they were first recommended as an alternative to AA with a similar cut.
posted by migurski at 7:08 AM on July 11

SustainU may be the vendor you need and you can feel good about supporting jobs for displaced coal miners and others in Appalachia. Good people. Full disclosure: Coalfield Development, the parent cluster of social enterprises and SustainU are both past clients.
posted by carmicha at 7:24 AM on July 11

With the understanding that there are no ethical t-shirts under capitalism

there are probably worse organizations to buy from than Spreadshirt.

The only criticism of their ethics I've been able to find online has been from harrumphing whataboutist MRA types I'd be happy to annoy.

I bought a set of four huge black T shirts from them with "socialist goon" in large white Arial type on the back and I'm happy with the quality.
posted by flabdablet at 7:31 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]

There are local screenprinting companies in your area, I promise you. Contact one of them and see what their rates are and suss out what kind of company they are. Probably not union, no screenprinters union that I know of, but as far as the shirts, you can provide those yourself once you find a suitably ethical source. They will also have connections and get better deals, but you might have to double check what company they order from and check out the ethical issues involved.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:56 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

I would call around to local screenprint shops like GoblinHoney suggests and ask if they have "direct to garment" printing.

A direct to garment setup is like an inkjet printer for t-shirts so each shirt can be completely custom. It might cost $30/shirt.
posted by gregr at 8:11 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

Most of the union and coop print shops are happy to work with you on small orders- you might call a couple in your area. You can google "union print shop [your city]" to get more ideas, or try these:
If you really want it to be ethical and understood as that by others, you should get the union label i.e. use a shop that will print your design and include a union bug.
posted by cushie at 9:10 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]

You could also look for print clubs or artist collectives that do an "open print night" - there a few in my area, one being the Newark Print Shop. There a few in Brooklyn as well. I know that doesn't help for your area, but could provide useful search terms.
posted by pilot pirx at 9:38 AM on July 11

Oh man!! My local witch friend runs Pickleweeds Press and she would totally do this, here's her Amazon link or you can find her on Facebook (I'm not on Facebook so I'm not sure how to link that).
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 10:56 AM on July 11

Mefite Devils Rancher has been printing teeshirts for most of his adult life. He might be able to help.
posted by ardgedee at 11:02 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

Try block printing?

You can get a 12"x12" square of Speedball Speedy Carve for ~$26.

On a piece of similarly sized paper, draw your design. You can even print out your caption to get that nice text look.

Then put a piece of tracing paper over the drawing and with a basic pencil, trace it. Be slightly messy with the lines, go over each part more than once.

Press the tracing paper to the pink block. The graphite should transfer over.

Get a set of Speedball gouges - AC Moore and Michaels should have them and they constantly have 50% off coupons.

Carve out everything that is not the graphite pattern. Carving the pink stuff is like drawing a knife through a dense cheese.

Get some blockprinting ink for fabrics and a brayer. Roll the ink onto the carved block, then press it to the ironed/flattened T-shirt of your choice.

Apply even, steady pressure to let the ink work its way into the cloth.

Lift the block and hang the shirt up - it should dry in a few days.

Here's a sample of an alien's head I pressed to some canvas bags a few weeks ago.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:45 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

"there are probably worse organizations to buy from than Spreadshirt.

The only criticism of their ethics I've been able to find online has been from harrumphing whataboutist MRA types I'd be happy to annoy."

I don't have a dog in this fight. I just wanted to point out that I'd never heard of Spreadshirt so I headed to their site, clicked their 'popular printed tank tops' link and found not one but two rebel flag variations and decided that's all I needed to see.
posted by komara at 11:52 AM on July 11

Since you're in a big city, I think the most ethical way to do this is to hire a local screenprinting company that's a small, local business (I'd look for a black-owned small business, personally). They might stock union-made plain t-shirts in the color you want, or you could order those separately online.

The conflict here might be between ethical and economical, but I think you know that.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:43 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]

For six shirts, assuming you only need one color of printing, screen printing is really overkill. You can use Heat Transfer Vinyl for small runs like that and it's way cheaper. I mean, like you could do this in your living room in an evening, if you wanted to, with a Cricut/Silhouette machine and an iron or heat press.

HTV is available in a lot of colors and the setup cost is minimal. And you are probably only talking about a foot or two of vinyl for six shirts with a single line of text on each.

Vinyl also lets you customize the shirts for individual people; they don't all have to be identical. E.g. you can put names or numbers on them like jerseys, if you wanted to. (Lots of team shirts, for kickball leagues and the like, are done this way for this reason.)

There are probably lots of places in the District proper that do this, but in terms of specific companies, and setting aside national chains like CustomInk, I know Jesmar Graphics in Vienna VA does it. They're a small business.

Tons of small sign shops and print shops also do it, because the equipment is the same (with the addition of a heat press) to that used for cutting vinyl signage/decals.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:01 PM on July 11

"No screenprinters union that I know of..."
Just to be clear, there are union printers, including screenprinters and you can learn about them here.

posted by cushie at 7:47 PM on July 11

Iron-on letters you can get at a craft store are very hardy if applied correctly. (I have successfully used these, but my guess is they're all about the same.) I used them on a hoodie two or three years ago, which has been washed dozens of times and is still in great shape.

Not sure how uniform you need them to be, but if everyone went to thrift store and found a suitable blank shirt, that would seem pretty ethical to me. I have done this many times, and people never really notice the shirts being different as long as the print/design/phrase is the same.
posted by Charity Garfein at 7:48 PM on July 11

There are silkscreen shops in your area (if your location is current). Reach out to them and ask about a small run! Locally made by a small business is sustainable and ethical - especially compared to shipping and trucking from other parts of the country/world. If the first shop you call doesn't do short runs, they will almost certainly be able to give you the number of a shop or artist who does.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:22 AM on July 12

You could find someone on Etsy who has a Cricut or Silhouette machine who does custom t-shirts. I am sure there are a zillion people and someone uses ethical t-shirts.
posted by radioamy at 12:14 PM on July 12

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